British Museum blog

Progress in the cemeteries

Michaela Binder, Durham University

After a somewhat disappointing first week in Cemetery C during which we only found heavily disturbed graves, our luck turned last week. We discovered two largely intact graves which provide us with important insights into the funerary customs of the people living at Amara West.

Excavations in Cemetery C

One of these intact graves is G216. As with most of the other graves excavated in Cemetery C it is of the niche grave type, in which the body of the deceased is placed in a narrow niche on the bottom of a rectangular shaft.

With a length of 2.2 metres and a width of 1.2 metres, G216 is the largest niche discovered so far. In contrast, other graves found this week are very small, with just enough space to accommodate a small child burial.

G217: Niche grave for a child burial

While some of these graves were used for only one burial, G216 was re-used no less than five times. As the niche is only large enough to hold one body, the older burials were simply thrown out of the shaft – we found the remains loosely scattered within it.

The coffin inside the burial niche of G216

Only the latest burial was discovered intact within the burial niche, placed in a wooden coffin decorated with a fine layer of white plaster, painted with parallel red and black stripes. This coffin was not exclusively used for this individual – parts of an earlier burial were found on the bottom of it.

Ivory Bes amulet (F9459)

One of the most exciting finds of this grave so far is a finely-carved ivory amulet found within the jumble of human bones on the side of the coffin. The figurine represents Bes, the Egyptian household god.

Though Bes amulets are not an unusual thing to find in graves, this is a special one. Its body features all the elements of a typical Egyptian style, but its head is carved in an entirely different, presumably local, manner, which is more reminiscent of an African mask than an Egyptian god. This little amulet therefore nicely shows how imported religious iconography was combined with local cultural elements.

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Top of the pots

Marie Millet, College de France, Paris

Marie Millet sorting pottery in the Ramesside town

Since the first season of excavation at Amara West in 2009, I have been studying the pottery vessels from both the town and its cemeteries. I’m now getting back into the rhythm of living and working in Amara West and the island of Ernetta where the expedition house is located.

Typically, I work at the site twice a week – for an initial sorting of the masses of pottery which comes from the town – then the remainder of my time is spent in the study rooms and pottery store.

Cooking jar from 20th dynasty house, about 1130 BC (C4000)

Most of the pottery is broken into small pieces (sherds), but diagnostic fragments (rims, bases, decorated pieces, handles …) can allow us to identify the original shape of the vessels. Of course, we do also find complete vessels.

Firstly, all the pottery needs to be washed, for which we employ a local workman named Salah Mohamed Ali. Special recording sheets are then used to record the characteristics of ceramics from each individual archaeological context (pit, wall, oven, occupation layers).

The proportion of different types of vessel can provide information on the function of a room or space. For example, the middle room in a Ramesside house yielded a cooking jar but also trays for baking bread (dokka). In the middle of this room there was a fireplace and a grinding-emplacement, suggesting the space was used for food preparation.

An ancient kitchen? A plan of the room where the cooking jar was found

In contrast, the room next door, at the back of the house, yielded a small jug (C4019), of a type used for perfume or ointment, so this room may have been more private – perhaps a bedroom?

Ointment or perfume jug (C4019)

Despite much of the ceramic looking rather unimpressive, it can clarify important aspects about ancient life, including food preparation, trade patterns and also the chronology of different occupation levels.

It is crucial that the ceramic evidence is recorded accurately – both drawn and photographed. An archaeological illustrator, Elisabeth, helps out with some of the drawings. Eventually, these will be published, allowing the finds from Amara West to be compared with those from sites across Egypt and Sudan.

All of the pottery stays in our storeroom, so it is always a race against time to finish studying it. In fact, we are always playing catch-up: this week I am working on pottery from last year, while material floods in from ongoing excavations.

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Back on site

Neal Spencer, British Museum

Surveying newly discovered graves in the post-New Kingdom cemetery

Following months of planning, preparation and travel it is always a relief to start work – but also rather unusual in that the initial days of excavation are very different from later in the season.

In the town, we must first remove deep layers of sand that have accumulated in the houses we partly excavated last year. There are no finds or pottery in these deposits so there is little recording and a fair bit of waiting before we reach real archaeology.

Clay floor revealed in the middle room of a small Ramesside house, about 1150BC

In two of the small houses, we are already down on earlier clean clay floors, with the remnants of a cooking hearth in the middle room of each house. It is likely that further occupation phases lie beneath.

A trench inside the southwestern corner of the wall is proving a little frustrating. Here, the buildings have been badly damaged by digging for clay, so there are deep pits filled with clean sand.

Looking for the southwestern town beneath thick layers of sand

Only a few fragments of walls have appeared so far, despite over 20 men and six wheelbarrows working seven hours a day to remove the sand! Sandbags are needed to keep up the trench sides.

In cemetery C, the team has revealed a number of small graves with niches for burials, but thus far all have been robbed, with only jumbled skeletal remains and fragments of pottery remaining. The robbers missed one nice object in Grave 220 – a faience scaraboid with a representation of Thoth as a baboon in place of the usual beetle form.

Faience scaraboid (F9312) with representation of Thoth, from Grave 221.

Another reason that the start of the season is unusual is that the daily rhythm has yet to crystalise – many of us are still setting up systems for later in the season (including a new electricity supply!), ordering and obtaining equipment from the town of Abri, while also trying to integrate new workmen into our digging system – we’ve hired 38 men this season.

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2011: time to get started

Neal Spencer, British Museum

I’ve just arrived in Khartoum – the 30°C temperature is described as ‘freezing’ by the locals – the rest of the team fly out later this week.

In an earlier post, Michaela outlined our aims for work in the post-New Kingdom cemetery. As I’m now in Sudan, it seems appropriate to summarise what we’re aiming to do in the town.

Brushing the floor of a 3,100-year old house

For the first time, the southern zone in the walled town will be investigated under the supervision of one of our archaeologists, Charly Vallance. The Egypt Exploration Society never excavated here in the 1940s and 1950s, so there’s a good possibility that we’ll find intact floors and occupation deposits inside the buildings.

We know from the magnetic data that the buildings are small in scale – perhaps lower class housing? But we’re especially intrigued by the possibility of finding occupation phases from after the collapse of Egyptian rule around 1070 BC. Our ceramicist, Marie Millet, conducted a survey in this area last year, and found distinctive later pottery, so we’re hopeful that some of the buildings date to this period.

This may help us answer questions about how life changed (or did not!) with political upheaval.

We’ll continue working in the northwestern group of houses, hoping to reveal the early phases of two houses – Mat Dalton and Tom Lyons will supervise this work. One of the main difficulties here is that with such well-preserved architecture, we often have to remove later phases to be able to access the earliest buildings. Such a decision is never taken lightly, and only happens after the building in question has been fully recorded with photography and technical drawings.

As ever, there’ll be a range of other work taking place. Jamie Woodward (University of Manchester) and Mark Macklin (University of Aberystwyth) will drop in for a flying visit, to take some samples of windblown sand in the dried-up river channel, to hopefully establish when the water stopped flowing there.

Our archaeobotanist, Philippa Ryan, will be working at the house on botanical remains we collected, but also sampling for phytoliths on site itself – these tiny fragments of plant material can tell us a lot about food-processing, diet and other activities.

As always in archaeology such plans can change very quickly due to the discovery of a particularly complicated set of contexts, a difficult-to-excavate object or group of finds, but also sudden shifts in the weather – howling gales or very high temperatures quickly curtail how much we can do.

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A spot of shopping

Neal Spencer, British Museum

Sieves made locally being useed during excavation

With departure for Sudan only weeks away, we’re putting together the final preparations for our fourth season of fieldwork at Amara West. Flights are booked, visas obtained, inoculations accumulated – and we have defined the key priorities for excavations in the town.

However, more mundane matters are currently being attended to.

As with most archaeology projects, the team needs a range of equipment, from specialist technical devices through to simple tools. Nearly all have one thing in common – none were designed specifically for archaeology!

Neal Spencer and Shadia Abdu Rabo using a Topcon total station to map the town site

From the builder’s toolbox we use trowels, measuring tapes, wheelbarrows, nails and hammers. While art shops provide us with the drafting film, tracing paper and of course pencils.

The surveyor’s total station – for accurately measuring distance and areas – is probably our most advanced piece of equipment. Less advanced but also important are the good quality plastic bags we need for all of the finds, samples and skeletal remains. With severe snow forecast for the UK, we’re hoping deliveries of equipment are not disrupted.

In our case, the lack of materials available near Amara West makes our task more difficult. Computers, cameras and specialist equipment comes from the UK (while we can buy a certain amount in Khartoum, it can be very expensive). Nonetheless, we make great use of local traders in Abri, the modern town across the Nile from Amara West, especially in the first few days of the season.

René Kertesz bringing the ancestor bust back to the excavation house, using a bucket from the local market

The carpenter provides us with trestle tables for working and dining, but also produces small botanical sieves (we bring the 5mm, 1mm and 0.5mm mesh out from the UK) and our drawing boards. At the blacksmith we can order metal tables, iron spikes for marking out trenches and even stands for our water filters.

At the carpenters shop, Abri

Lamps, wiring, bulbs, shovels, plastic buckets (for showering and washing pottery), sugar sacks (for carrying spoil) and many brushes (for cleaning excavated features) come from the local hardware store.

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Communicating with the dead?

Neal Spencer, British Museum

Sandstone bust (front)

Excavating ancient houses in the Nile Valley typically yields masses of pottery, simple stone tools and other modest objects.

Though unspectacular, these provide an important insight into the technologies, dietary customs and even religious beliefs of the ancient inhabitants, and sometimes help tell us how different spaces were used.

Project team member René Kertesz revealing the sandstone bust

Occasionally, however, a more spectacular find appears. Last season, digging the back room of a narrow three-roomed house dating to the time of Ramesses III or shortly after (around 1150 BC), the windblown sand parted to reveal a small sandstone bust of a male figure, still perched atop the pedestal constructed to support it.

Only 29.2cm high, the bust shows a male figure with a short wig. Remnants of blue and red paint on the chest and upper back suggest he was shown wearing a collar of beads and pendants.

Around 150 similar ancestor busts have been found – some are on display in the British Museum but this one is unusual in being found where the ancient inhabitants had placed it.

The back of the sandstone bust

Not all were placed in houses: some come from near temples, chapels and even tombs. Inscribed stelae show individuals offering to similar busts, and it has been suggested that these allowed the living to communicate and request the intervention of the deceased in earthly matters (disease, disputes and so on).

Narrow three-roomed house – the bust was found in the near room

Four examples are inscribed with the names of individuals, but the majority do not bear a name – like the Amara West example – and could perhaps have fulfilled different meanings for different people. Intriguingly, the rear room of the house was blocked up with the ancestor bust still inside, while people continued to live in the other two rooms.

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Unearthing the cemeteries at Amara West

Michaela Binder, Durham University

Michaela Binder excavating a burial chamber in tomb G305

In wintery, snow-covered Durham preparations for the coming season of work in the cemetery are underway, with only six weeks left until the new season starts. During January and February, we will return to Cemetery C, the post-New Kingdom necropolis first excavated in 2009.

The international team of three archaeologists – including myself and two new team members from the UK and Canada – all specialise in the excavation of graves and human remains.

This is crucial because we are likely to encounter complicated multiple burial situations, and only archaeologists with experience and understanding of human skeletons are able to recover all of the evidence. For example, the way in which individual bones lie when discovered can indicate whether the bodies were disturbed shortly after burial or later, after the soft tissue had disappeared.

A view over excavations at cemetery C in 2009.

During the six weeks in the field we will extend the area investigated in the previous season further to the east and to the north. A magnetometric survey is used as a guide towards promising areas, allowing us to pinpoint exactly the location of graves and tomb shafts.

Cemetery C is particularly important as it dates to a period in history about which relatively little is known, after the pharaonic occupation of the area ceased.

2.	Inspector Shadia Abdu Rabo with pottery from post-New Kingdom tomb

The finds and human remains will help us to find out more about how people lived, and what religious and cultural beliefs they were following.

We already know from the previous season in 2009 that the graves yield a large range of well preserved wooden furniture, pottery and other grave goods such as jewellery and scarabs.

An exciting new season starts in less than 40 days…


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The archaeology begins at home

Neal Spencer, British Museum

Storeroom during clearance, with traditional beds (angareeb)

Work on converting parts of the expedition house has seen us create more working rooms in a western annex of the main house. As the artefact stores are also located here, it will create an area of the house for study, away from the eating and washing areas, but also the bedrooms.

Thankfully, mudbrick houses can be easily modified, as doors and windows can be inserted into walls, or blocked up.

Kawsir (left) in store, opening date containers

One of the rooms had been locked since we moved to this house, and used as a storage space for the owner’s possessions. There are many houses on the island that are unoccupied, with windows and doors blocked up – as the owner has travelled to Khartoum or abroad for work, or has passed away. In many such houses, a room is kept locked to store all manner of tools, clothing, furniture and other possessions.

When we opened Kawsir’s storeroom it provided a fascinating glimpse of local life for over a century (the house itself is perhaps 70 years old). Some objects were relatively recent – plastic jerry cans for diesel, printed school books, plastic flasks for tea, and a wide selection of aluminium kitchen ware, mattresses and blankets.

Various containers, a mudbrick mould, stove and bedpan

A photo album provided a fascinating glimpse at the people who owned these objects, their relatives and friends: colleagues on a construction site in January 1983, families in traditional houses much like ours, wedding photos, and studio portraits – something of a kaleidoscope of changing fashions.

Family photograph album

Metal crates, one from the Second World War embossed with “F&L I 1942”, were used to store books and clothing and, while a more traditional carved wooden chest also held a TV and digital satellite receiver. Such chests are typically given to women upon marriage.

Carved wood chest, with TV and satellite reciever found inside.

We also found more traditional objects, of types in use for centuries. Two wooden beds (anagareeb) with their distinctive carved legs are not dissimilar to ancient examples, fragments of which are found in the cemetery at Amara West.

A wide range of woven matting – for the floor (brish), but also used as prayer mats or to lay on beds prior to the arrival of mattresses – was found, alongside shallow basketry containers for wheat and other foodstuffs, and 12 food-covers (tabag).

Angareeb-bed, with mats.

Dating these objects is almost impossible as many are still used today alongside plastic and aluminium products. The use for individual objects has also changed across time – thus an aluminium barrel originally used to transport 70lbs of insecticide from Philips Suphar, a Dutch company, to Port Sudan, is now typically kept to store flour.

Two traditional wooden serving dishes (gadha) were also found, with incised decor around the rim. These could date to the late nineteenth century, or even earlier.

Unsurprisingly, on an island where date production is the major source of income, several containers for dates were found in the store: a traditional clay guseeba, pottery zirs, and plastic barrels – a familiar mix of modern and traditional. The dates are often stored in houses for up to a year after harvest – a copper and bone date measure was also found.

Traditional pottery and date measure (right)

Our inspector Shadia Abdu Rabo has been helping us interpret some of the objects. The potential for anthropological research on material like this is vast, especially in a village environment that is changing so quickly.

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Return to Amara West

Neal Spencer, British Museum

The steep river bank at Amara West, overlooking the Nile.

Amidst the chaos, heat and dust of our building work at the dig house, we finally managed a short visit to the archaeological site of Amara West itself earlier this week, to see whether much change is evident from the end of our excavation season in late February.

During the season our daily commute consists of a 10-minute journey downstream in a small launch with outboard motor – the return journey takes 20 minutes as the boat contends with the Nile current.

Motor-launch for the commute to Amara West.

The boat is usually laden with workmen, equipment and of course ancient pottery and artefacts being brought back to the expedition house for study and storage.

The site is much as we left it in February, though windblown sand has started to cover up the buildings we excavated.

View over Amara West, with stone architecture from the Governor’s Residence on the surface

Amara West is buffeted by strong northerly winds most of the year, sometimes so strong we have to stop work for the day. This wind, and the sand it brings, is largely responsible for the good preservation of the New Kingdom houses and other buildings.

Shadia Abdu Rabo, antiquities inspector, with Neal Spencer, in 20th dynasty house (about 1100 BC).

We also know the sand was a problem in ancient times, as the inhabitants took measures to keep it out of houses as the outside ground level rose.

20th dynasty villa, excavated in 2009, now almost covered with windblown sand.

We’re now at an advanced stage of planning next season’s excavation priorities for the town – to continue in the group of mid-sized houses near the governor’s residence, and to start work in the smaller houses at the southern end of the town.

Excavations will begin in eight weeks time.

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Getting prepared

Neal Spencer, British Museum

Amara West, Sudan

Far from the British Museum, preparations are underway for the next phase of excavations in the Amara West research project.

Amara West is an ancient town in northern Sudan, which was occupied by pharaonic Egypt between 1500 and 1070 BC. We’ve been studying it since 2008, carrying out archaeological digs every year. Our next season starts in January when we’ll be writing regular updates on our progress.

For now, I’m here with Claire Messenger, who co-ordinates the British Museum international training programme, for a two-week visit to meet with colleagues from the National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums (Sudan) and to prepare the project house for the busy season ahead.

During excavations, a team of 10-15 specialists lives in a converted mudbrick house, on the nearby island of Ernetta, a short boat-trip from the ancient site. This picturesque island features clusters of traditional Nubian houses set among date-palm groves and small plots for growing fava beans and other vegetables. Three mosques, three small shops and a cemetery are also found on the island – but no vehicles.

The island seen from the river Nile

The house, owned by local primary school teacher Kawsar Mohamed Ali, is arranged around large courtyards, and is designed for the local climate, particularly the cool verandahs to encourage airflow during the summer heat. However, aspects of the house need to be changed to fit with our requirements: installation of showers, creation of object and equipment stores, and of course more bedrooms than the typical family needs. Throughout, we are trying to retain the original appearance and ambience of the house.

Mud-bricks laid out to dry next to the expedition house

Skills not taught in Egyptology or archaeology courses are needed here! Local builders are employed to convert the house, using a mixture of traditional materials (mud, sand, mudbricks) and more modern products (cement, electrical wiring). There is no mains electricity here on the island, or in the nearby area, so we only have power in the evenings, run from the neighbour’s water-pump (it doubles as a generator). Loading up the water tank

All our water comes from the Nile, for washing, cooking and drinking – we use ceramic filters to make sure it’s pure.

Many key pieces of equipment are not available locally, so earlier this week we bought a 500-litre fibreglass water tank in the capital city, Khartoum, strapped it to the roof of a Landcruiser and drove the 700 km north to site. We hope the water-tank will ensure we have a more reliable supply of water in the coming seasons. Throughout it all we’ve had the tremendous assistance of our Sudanese inspector, Shadia Abdu Rabo.

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This is Room 69a, our next #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery space. It's used for small temporary displays by the Coins and Medals Department – the current one is all about trade and exchange in the Indian Ocean. You can see the entrance to the Department in the background of this pic – it's designed like a bank vault as the Coins and Medals collection is all stored within the Department. Born #onthisday in 1757: poet and printmaker William Blake. This is his Judgement of Paris Happy #Thanksgiving to our US friends! Anyone for #turkey? This is Room 69, Greek and Roman life. It's the next gallery space in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series.
Room 69 takes a cross-cultural look at the public and private lives of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The objects on display have been chosen to illustrate themes such as women, children, household furniture, religion, trade and transport, athletics, war, farming and more. Around the walls, supplementary displays illustrate individual crafts on one side of the room, and Greek mythology on the opposite side. This picture is taken from the mezzanine level, looking down into the gallery. The next gallery in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series is Room 68, the Citi Money Gallery. The history of money can be traced back over 4,000 years. During this time, currency has taken many different forms, from coins to banknotes, shells to mobile phones.
The Citi Money Gallery displays the history of money around the world. From the earliest evidence, to the latest developments in digital technology, money has been an important part of human societies. Looking at the history of money gives us a way to understand the history of the world – from the earliest coins to Bitcoin, and from Chinese paper money to coins from every nation in the world. You can find out more about what's on display at britishmuseum.org/money The next gallery in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series is Room 67: Korea. The Korea Foundation Gallery is currently closed for refurbishment and will reopen on 16 December 2014. You can find out more about the refurb at koreabritishmuseum.tumblr.com  The unique culture of Korea combines a strong sense of national identity with influences from other parts of the Far East. Korean religion, language, geography and everyday life were directly affected by the country’s geographic position, resulting in a rich mix of art and artefacts.
Objects on display in Room 67 date from prehistory to the present day and include ceramics, metalwork, sculpture, painting, screen-printed books and illuminated manuscripts.
A reconstruction of a traditional sarangbang, or scholar’s study, is also on display and was built by contemporary Korean craftsmen.
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